We’ll actually get into a real discussion here, and pretend that I wasn’t just looking for an excuse to post this incredible photo. Hakeem with the red bow tie, David Stern with the mustache — just beautiful all around.
Studs like Hakeem, like Michael Jordan, like LeBron, don’t come around that often; we know that, yet still fans have this idea that only world-class players can be considered with top picks, and that anyone who isn’t going to become a definite All-Star is unworthy of being drafted.
Not every top pick is automatically going to become a superstar, and not every non-superstar drafted highly is going to become a bust. There is a considerable amount of value in average players, and players just below an All-Star level — once a player is drafted onto a team, his draft position should then be forgotten about. Some drafts are strong, some are weak; some great players are drafted low, some terrible players are drafted highly.
We as fans tend to have very selective memories surrounding drafts and their busts, and often make up our minds early, growing too stubborn to change our opinion when a player’s situation changes. Three of the biggest draft busts in recent memory are Derrick Coleman, Michael Olowokandi, and Darko Milicic, none of whom were as bad, or as unreasonably deserving of scorn, as their popular reputations would attest.
While Coleman, the number one pick in 1990, never lived up to his considerable hype, he still managed to average 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds a game over a 15-year career, reaching the 20-point plateau three straight seasons with the Nets. After Coleman, the next-best power forwards in the draft were Tyrone Hill and Jayson Williams, neither of whom became nearly the NBA player that Coleman was, despite him being the one left carrying the “bust” label.
In 1998, the Los Angeles Clippers were mired in the same string of sub-mediocrity that continues today, just without the excitement of Blake Griffin to put butts in seats. Moving into owner Donald Sterling’s brand-new Staples Center the next season, they were going to become co-tenants with the Lakers and All-NBA First Team center Shaquille O’Neal, who was still the hot new thing at the close of his second season in purple and gold. Right or wrong, the Clippers took a risk on Olowokandi at the top of the draft, a huge, strong center who had dominated at University of the Pacific and had only been playing basketball since the age of 17. The counter-argument was that he’d never played against even decent college competition, and in the wake of the owners’ lockout that eliminated the first half of his rookie season, the Kandi Man lost valuable training camp time and development experience, irreparably stunting his growth. Even so, Olowokandi still managed to establish himself as the best center in his draft class, becoming a real asset on defense in his ten seasons in the league.
Of these supposed draft blunders, Milicic is the only one still playing, and yet the most avid of NBA fans have prematurely closed the book on his career. Being drafted onto a championship-caliber roster (thanks to a trade with the Vancouver Grizzlies made seven years prior), with a coach in Larry Brown who has always been loathe to give rookies significant minutes, the Pistons figured that they could afford to bring him along slowly. Playing so infrequently, the youngest foreigner ever to step foot on an NBA court had a difficult time adjusting to the pace and physicality of the American game. When traded from Detroit in 2006, Darko finally began playing over 20 minutes a game, and ignited his growth as a player that he missed out on three years prior. Still just 25 years old, he’s established himself as one of the top shot-blockers in the league, and gives the Timberwolves a much-needed defensive presence in the post next to Michael Beasley and Kevin Love. Despite his stature as the poster boy for European overdrafts and a popular whipping boy for fans, Milicic has nonetheless gotten his career back on the tracks after it was derailed early on. With seven members of the 2003 first round not even playing in the NBA anymore, and many more sitting at the bottom of rosters, Darko’s climb to averageness should not be understated.
This is all especially relevant because 2011 is shaping up to be a comparably weak draft, with many good players in contention for the top spot, but no great player taking the reins. A player like Arizona’s Derrick Williams does not have “star” written all over him, but is a possible number one pick anyway. Seemingly a Shareef Abdur-Rahim/David West type player, the odds are against him becoming a perennial All-Star, or the leader of winning team. Same with Kyrie Irving (steady, not nearly as explosive as Derrick Rose or John Wall) and Harrison Barnes (a Paul Pierce clone). Just because your team isn’t drafting the next all-world superstar, have faith that he will turn into a good, valuable NBA player.
And as a present to my loyal readers for having gotten through that, here’s a gallery of my favorite NBA draft suits of all time, and the players who wore them: